After pivoting a failed startup, Egyptian entrepreneur Naguib Sawiris has been charging forward in the edtech space with his tutoring platform Yup.

Sawiris dropped out of Stanford in 2013, but held onto a recurring memory from his engineering studies that ultimately inspired the company: students in the same program were always texting each other for homework help. He was also asked for help often by his younger sisters and cousins, which really sparked the idea in Sawiris's head.

For one tutor, or one person hiring a tutor, the process is a relatively easy one. Yet scaling up a tutoring operation that offers reliable and quality service to a large customer base requires so much more than giving students the answers; it necessitates the tutors crafting actionable learning experiences.

"I want Yup to be a learning service, not a homework answer line," said Sawiris.

Improving the Network

The trick to building Yup's network was constructing it as an organic marketplace. Students arrived looking for answers, but Sawiris wanted them to walk away from the interaction with not only homework help, but a better understanding of the concepts. This, he believed, would be Yup's primary differentiator from the market.

In order to accomplish this, Yup instituted a policy wherein tutors rate each other's work. This is the company's mechanism for quality control of the tutors. Prior to this, the platform would source feedback from students and it gave rather ironic results.

The higher quality tutors often received the lowest feedback, while the best reviews went to the tutors who were actually the least effective. User research found that these surprising statistics stemmed from the better tutors taking the time to walk students through some learning exercises, rather than doling out the answers.

Thus far, online tutoring is a packed field, but the market has never blown up into the mainstream, according to Sawiris. To remedy that and create success, Yup is taking an aggressive approach based on outcomes.

Tutors are initially paid a flat hourly rate for their work, but they get promoted to senior tutors based on their performance on the platform. These senior tutors are not only paid at a higher rate, but are tasked with review other tutors' sessions within 48 hours of completion using an internal rubric.

A measure like this is designed to ensure the perpetual quality of the engagements and harness network effects to draw in more students as customers.

These interactions take place entirely in mobile chat. Students submit their requests for help and post pictures of the problems they're facing for the tutor to view.

Remarkably, Yup's tutor network is active and sufficient enough that the response time is averaging around a minute, which is completely by design.

The edtech startup monetarily incentivizes tutors to be online and available and to respond quickly. Tutors that lives overseas also receive incentives to be active on the platform during late evenings and weekends to accommodate students' frequently erratic schedules as well.

Since the platform is focused on providing learning experiences, the average session lasts approximately 24 minutes. Before the framework for engagements was built out, sessions would last only about 7 minutes and students weren't benefitting as much as possible from the interaction, Sawiris and his team realized.

To fix that, Yup instituted a new methodology, one that is instructional and socratic in nature. Tutors are trained to guide the student to the answer and test their understanding with a similar problem, albeit with changed values, of course. This decision is what led to the increased levels of engagement.

Yup's target demographic right now spans students aged 13 to 16, mostly middle and high schoolers. Their strategy is to remain in that age group and expand upward as their current cohort of customers gets older and matriculates upward to postsecondary school - and return to the platform.

What's unfortunate, however, is a conundrum edtech often shares with dating apps: doing the job right quickly risks churning the customers out of the pipeline. Yup's focus on socratic tutoring is also designed to combat this challenge, by building loyalty through increased student success.

Yup's Next Steps

After Yup's recent raise, which included the first ever investment by Sesame Street's venture fund, their focus is threefold.

First, determining the economics of their pricing scheme for students. Currently, the customers pay a monthly fee for unlimited access. As the platform grows and scales more, identifying the best price point is a priority.

To facilitate that scaling, Yup is looking for workable channels for distribution, having already established 21 pilot programs with schools. The goal is to avoid buying revenue and make the revenue growth profitable.

As the edtech company began partnering with schools, the Yup team found a new concern for their growth: working with low-income students.

"I don't want to price a student out of learning," said Sawiris. ""Our goal is to help all students, regardless of their families access to disposable income."

Yup is pursuing partnerships with schools in distressed neighborhoods, aiming to provide tutoring help via B2B model, which is in an experimental phase and aimed at making the partnerships approach sustainable in the long run.

On an operational note, Sawiris plans to double the engineering team over the next 3-6 months, to ensure scaling goes according to plan and to improve the onboarding process for new tutors.

It's exciting to see the first investment by Sesame Street working to shake up the edtech space with such a result-oriented approach. Keep an eye out for new developments from Yup as they move to scale their tutoring services platform.

Published on: Dec 17, 2016